Culliford is a sophomore at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, N.Y. This essay won first place in the 1995 ``Wonders of Plastics'' scholarship essay contest sponsored by the Society of Plastics Engineers, based in Brookfield, Conn.
As stewards of the earth, we owe it to ourselves and our descendants to minimize the imprint we make on the planet and its resources. This responsibility involves making wise decisions on energy consumption, industrial pollution and waste disposal.
Plastics, one of the miracles of this century, have become an important part of conservation because of their wide-ranging uses and minimal impact on raw materials and energy use. Impressive strides have also been made in finding ways to recycle plastics-thanks to the concern of consumer groups and conservationists, as well as the inventiveness of industrialists and entrepreneurs worldwide.
The term plastics comes from the Greek word meaning ``to form.'' Certainly plastics have taken more forms than the original researchers might ever have imagined-from clear wrap, to airplane parts, to construction materials, to artificial hearts! Most plastics are refined from petroleum, natural gas or coal. The resulting resins can have quite different properties, depending on the manufacturing process. These resins are, in turn, processed in a variety of ways to produce a dizzying number of products, a fact that has given plastics a well-earned reputation for versatility.
One of the most familiar uses of plastics is in packaging goods ranging from frozen foods to home computers. The near elimi-nation of food spoilage and product damage - and, therefore, waste - thanks to modern packaging is an obvious plus. What few realize is that without plastics, 400 percent more material by weight would be needed and double the amount of energy would be consumed in the prod-uction of nonplastic alternative packaging. Since the additional packaging material would have to be transported as well, there would be added depletion of fuel reserves.
While research continues into proper landfill management and what does and does not degrade, we continue to buy supplies carried home in either paper or plastic bags. Environmentalists have pointed out that the paper variety is a drain on our forests and fuel resources. Plastic saves trees in this instance, and requires 40 percent less energy to manufacture. The weight advantage alone goes to the plastic bags since they take up far less storage and disposal space, which amounts to savings in fueland landfill. One recent conservation advertisement states that it would take five trucks to deliver as many paper bags as one truckload of comparable plastic ones.
Plastics are used routinely by consumers in durable goods - manufactured items with a lifeexpectancy of several years or more - which include such things as household appliances, telephones and automobiles. Certain unique properties of plastics have not only extended the service life of common machines, but have increased their efficiency. The corrosion resistance, durability, resilience, light weight and moldability of plastics, for example, have been a boon to auto manufacturers, enabling them to produce safer and more comfortable vehicles that conserve energy and stand up to wear and tear. Life-saving airbags, cushioned dashboards, contoured seats, flexible bumpers, as well as safer gas tanks, lightweight housings for headlights, mirrors and semiconductors, even racing stripes-all are made possible through plastics.
An exceptional recent success story involves plastics and one of the nation's leading scenic attractions-Niagara Falls. The permanently moist environment surrounding the observation deck on the U.S. side of the falls made it imperative that the rusted steel structure be replaced for safety reasons. The replacement extended the full 185-foot height of the falls and involved 14 flights of stairs and landings, as well as 1,000 feet of handrail. Fiberglass-reinforced plastic was chosen as the replacement material because of its superior corrosion resistance, strength and rigidity, minimal maintenance, and low life-cycle cost. Lightweight components made for easy installation, as well. New York now boasts a safe and attractive structure astride one of its most beautiful natural wonders, an example of the carefree permanence made possible through plastics.
Plastics technology keeps improving as industry seeks to maximize efficiency and minimize waste. The aim is to use fewer raw materials in production and less energy in transportation. Finally, in order to cut down on what is eventually brought to landfills, innovations in recycling are diverting used plastics from the waste stream and making them into useful products. This involves organized collection and industry-led reclamation. Recycled plastics are used in a rapidly growing variety of products including carpets, piping, industrial fibers, insulation board, landscape timbers, fiberfill-and the list goes on. One recycled plastics source book lists 1,100 products from more than 300 manufacturers. The most recent recycling technologies are yielding end-products that are identical to the materials used to produce new plastics, an important advance in the field of recycling.
Many of the ordinary things that we depend upon are made of some form of plastic. The simple act of looking around may easily reveal a plastics medley: typewriter, pen, rug, window shades, wall covering, desk calendar, pencil holder, switch plate, light fixture, fax machine, television - all in the space of one room. Plastics affect our lives in more positive ways than we know, whether it be in the home, or in the more removed field of medicine, aerospace, engineering, or nuclear physics. Plastics are one of technology's miracles of versatility. Their intelligent manufacture, use, re-use, and disposal are up to us.